10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving To Korea

Looking back on my time living and teaching in South Korea, I often think if only I had known that BEFORE moving to Korea.” There are so many things that we take for granted in our day-to-day lives that we miss only when we don’t have easy access to them anymore. For me, here is a top ten list of things I wish I knew before moving to Korea.

moving to korea

1. Learning to read Korean is relatively easy.

And believe it or not, it helps you get around! What I didn’t realize (until after I learned Korean) was that many Korean signs are English words written in Hangul (Korean). One afternoon, I decided to watch a “Talk to Me in Korean” Youtube video to learn to read Korean. After about 2 hours of studying, I walked to the bus stop to head home. Looking at the sign above the stop, I read 버스which translates to: bus-uh. BUS! It was such a cool feeling to know that those symbols meant bus.

2. You can rescue a pet!

When I moved to Korea, I kissed my parents’ dog goodbye and spent the first 8 months missing him terribly. I missed having a furry companion to walk and hike with and someone to cuddle with when I got home. I looked into the pet rescue process and how to get my furry friend back to Canada with me. Even though it took a lot of planning, it was very doable. And fairly easy, too!

rescue dog korea

Out for a hike with my rescue pup from Korea, Winston.

3. Koreans eat different foods.

Okay, this sounds like a no-brainer, but let me explain! I knew going to Korea meant eating different foods. What I wasn’t as prepared for was grocery shopping in Korea. Roaming the aisles of a grocery store is different in Korea for two big reasons: 1. Most labels are in Korean. 2. Koreans eat and cook Korean dishes, so finding your standard go-to items can be a bit of a challenge. For me as a Canadian, I found it shocking that maple syrup was not in my neighbourhood grocery store. I had to venture a little further out to find some of that sweet, sweet Canadian maple syrup for my homemade pancakes. 

4. Baking supplies are hard to find!

Another surprise to me was the struggle in finding baking supplies. Baking is my favourite pastime, so when I realized that things like whole wheat flour, vanilla extract and even baking powder were hard to find I got discouraged. Luckily, an expat community of fellow bakers helped me track down a special baking market in Nampo-dong in Busan. It took several attempts and some time being lost to finally find the baking market. But oh, was it worth it! 

5. Ovens are not common household appliances.

Sticking to my baking theme here, ovens were not included in any of the apartments I lived in. While they all came with air conditioners, a fridge and a heater, I had to venture out into the baking market to track down a toaster oven. Be warned, some of the fancier ovens have great features and timer settings, but they only come with Korean instructions. You may need to ask for some assistance in the initial set-up process. I ended up writing English sticky notes on the dials so I knew what each one was for. 

what to bring to korea oven

My first Korean toaster oven.

6. The English book selection is limited.

Again, this may seem like an obvious fact. Duh, you live in Korea. Of course there won’t be limitless English books! Normally I’m the type of person who loves the feeling, smell and weight of a sturdy book in hand. But over the course of my time in Korea, I learned to embrace my Kindle and other phone apps that allowed me to buy and download an assortment of English books. I also stashed books into my carry-on bag and luggage and always asked friends and family to mail me books for my birthday or Christmas.

7. Bring shoes.

Moving to Korea means packing up your whole life. Depending on the airline, you may be limited to one or two pieces of luggage to fit everything into. What are the important things to pack and what can be left behind? Make sure you bring shoes! I am a US size 7 and could find shoes in Korea, but they were usually a bit tight. I did quite a bit of running and hiking and was thankful to have my comfy shoes from back home. Side note: If you’re a man with large feet (think US size 10 +) bring shoes from home. Trust me. 

what to bring to korea shoes

Sore feet from a late night of dancing (and heels that were just a teeny bit too small).

8. It gets cold!

I’m originally from a pretty northern part of Ontario, Canada where we survive in -40 C weather in the winter. When I looked up Busan’s average winter temperature of -6 C, I scoffed and left my winter coat, mittens and hats behind. Boy, was I sorry that I did! While the temperatures are not that cold, the heating systems in Korea are different from those in North America. Many of the apartments are not insulated well and schools generally are very cautious with how much heat they use during the winter months. Bring that warm coat and mittens… and maybe a hot pack or two to keep warm at your desk or on the subway/bus ride home.

9. Your favourite make-up may be hard to find.

While Korea has no shortage of affordable and cool make-up products, it can be difficult to find Western brands. In some cases, you can order products, but it can be expensive and take a long time. For me, I opted to pack about a year’s worth of mascara in my suitcase. Whenever I started running low, I either asked friends/family to send more or stocked up the next time I visited.

10. Bring shampoo and dye your specific hair type and colours.

Korean hair (for men and women) is different from Western hair. The way that they cut and dye their hair is a very different process. If you colour your hair often, you may want to consider bringing your own products from home, or going for a more natural colour. Colours like blonde can be difficult and expensive to maintain for foreigners in Korea (I speak from experience). If you have a certain shampoo or conditioner that works for your hair, make sure to pack lots, as they may be harder to come by in Korea.

colouring hair in korea

In my third year in Korea, I opted to use henna from Canada to dye my own hair rather than continue bleaching it blonde. It made for interesting afternoons, healthy hair, and fun photo opps!

Things will be different, but different can be good!

It can be difficult to fit everything into one or two small suitcases, so make sure to pack the essentials for Korea and buy what you can there. Embrace Korean foods and culture. If you are missing something from home, there are always ways to find it or make due with a substitute for the short term. Keep in mind that things will be different, but that’s part of the adventure!

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3 replies
  1. Raven
    Raven says:

    I just recently moved to Korea and some of this stuff was so so helpful. I love baking and I am really good at making very elaborate cakes but I can’t find an oven big enough. The one my apartment came with is a microwave/oven and I haven’t tried baking cakes or anything in it yet.

  2. Missemiwan
    Missemiwan says:

    Thank you so much for the tips! I was so surprised about the winter cold and no ovens! I’m also Canadian from Quebec and I am thinking about moving to South Korea too. Your blog post was very useful!


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